I set out to walk from Stoke Newington to Muswell Hill on the second-longest (and probably second-hottest) day of the year. I don’t want to load up with books at the start of the walk but the Mind shop on Stoke Newington High Street is open, so I can hardly walk past it without going in. They have a Picador I’ve never seen before, Daniel Richler’s Kicking Tomorrow. The author, born in London, moved to Canada and hosts – or hosted, when this was published in 1993 – Canada’s weekly TV books show. Later I discover his biological father was screenwriter Stanley Mann, who adapted John Fowles’ The Collector (which I have in my Picador collection). Daniel’s mother, Florence Wood, divorced Mann and married Mordecai Richler in 1960. The guy on the till in Mind tells me he donated Kicking Tomorrow to the shop. It’s a great read, he tells me; he hung on to it for years before deciding he probably wasn’t going to read it again.
Around the corner on Stoke Newington Church Street I do walk past Church Street Bookshop, but only because I was in there last night and I don’t want the proprietor to think I’m weird going in again. In truth I go in there a lot, always in the hope that he’ll have unpacked some more of the boxes of books that are stacked in the middle of the shop. He’s always playing jazz and I always ask him who it is and it’s almost always Charlie Haden. I once, foolishly, told him I wasn’t a big Charlie Haden fan and watched his smile fade, so then I bought a Charlie Haden album – Jasmine with Keith Jarrett on ECM – and now I’m a Charlie Haden fan. Last night I bought a US edition of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, because I’ve been curious about it for some time, a lovely old Penguin edition of John Barth’s first novel The Floating Opera, and a copy of Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation for my daughter because she’s about to travel to Amsterdam (I have my own copy that I want to keep).
Just past Church Street Bookshop I see a man walking towards me who looks a lot like Wish You Were Here and A Walk in the Park author Travis Elborough. I’ve seen Travis in the ’hood before – can I say ‘in the ’hood’? – and in fact there’s no mistaking him in his cool black-framed glasses. Travis tells me he’s just rescued a frog from his neighbour’s cat. He’s on his way back from Clissold Park, where he took the frog to release it into the pond. Having, in the past, failed to rescue mice and birds from the truculent clutches of the Royle family cat, I’m full of admiration for Travis, but time is getting on and the sun is beating down, so I take my own walk in the park (no sign of the frog, though, worryingly, a heron stands watchfully in his waders in the shallows) and then wander through the streets of Finsbury Park and across the open space of Finsbury Park to the start of the Parkland Walk.
No one seems able to agree on the length of the Parkland Walk. It’s variously described as 1.7 miles, 2.5 miles, 4 miles and even 4.5 miles long. This may be down to the fact that it’s in two parts, north and south. The south part takes you, along the trackbed of a former railway line, from Finsbury Park to just south of Highgate tube, where I’m looking forward to paying a visit to the excellent Ripping Yarns secondhand bookshop, where, last time I was in, I chatted to book blogger and author Jen Campbell. I’ve bought many books and back copies of Ambit from Ripping Yarns over the years. The old offices of Ambit were so close to Ripping Yarns you could have stood outside the bookshop, fashioned a paper aeroplane out of your manuscript and submitted it to Martin Bax by launching it across Archway Road.
When I reach the top of the south section of the Parkland Walk, I pass the Boogaloo, where Serpent’s Tail used to hold readings, and cross Archway Road to enter, first, another Mind shop, which I remember has a particularly good selection of books. This, I’m pleased to see, is still the case. Once I’m able to tear my eyes away from the spines of two of my own books – my difficult second novel Saxophone Dreams (‘not exactly beach reading,’ BBC Three Counties radio presenter) and almost-but-not-quite-filmed fourth novel The Director’s Cut (‘You haven’t quite managed to get what I most loved about the novel into the script,’ Jeremy Thomas) – I find some gems. Among the Picadors there’s a second novel from Julie Myerson, The Touch, which I can’t remember ever seeing before in this edition, and Hermann Hesse’s Klingsor’s Last Summer with a vibrant yellow illustration in a notable series of covers by Peter Le Vasseur. Additionally I am unable to resist a Grafton paperback of Ian Watson’s Evil Water (to sit alongside his Slow Birds), a first novel, I Hear Voices (Abacus), by Paul Ableman, and a hardcover US first edition of Stephen Schneck’s The Nightclerk (Grove Press), which starts, interestingly, mid-sentence. I’ve read something somewhere about this novel recently, but, annoyingly, I can’t remember what or where.
I worry about my memory some more when I leave the Mind shop and walk up Archway Road to look for Ripping Yarns. It’s not where I thought it would be, so I walk back down past the Mind shop to the lower set of traffic lights. I know it’s by a set of traffic lights, but not this low down, surely. I walk back up to the higher set of lights. I’m pretty sure that Handsome Mens Grooming BarberShop is where Ripping Yarns should be. I feel disoriented and disgruntled – and not just on account of the missing apostrophe. A quick look at my phone tells me that Ripping Yarns closed in 2015 following a rent rise. I feel a sudden emptiness inside, a hollowing-out. Like the world needs another men’s barbershop. I run my hand over my bald head and cross the road, then dive into Highgate Wood. I walk slowly along a path that runs parallel with Muswell Hill Road. Couples overtake me, men saying to women, ‘I think we need to take this to another level…’ and ‘Unless it comes from the artist himself, it’s meaningless, decision by committee…’
Muswell Hill is sweltering in the noonday sun. I buy more suncream and drink a litre of smoothie made from various blue fruits. The Muswell Hill Bookshop is not how I remember it. It’s smaller, for a start, or seems it. I wonder if it’s moved along the row, into smaller premises. In the Oxfam bookshop I’m pleased to see, as I always am, Julian Barnes’s 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters shelved in History. In Fiction I select John Burnside’s recent short story collection Something Like Happy (Vintage) and Colm Tóibín’s The Story of the Night in white-spined Picador. I bought The Story of the Night last October from Dalston Oxfam for 99p, but this copy contains two inclusions: the folded-up Pasatiempos page from La Vanguardia Catalan newspaper dated 23 December 2011 on which the difícil sudoku has been completed, the fácil puzzle is part-completed and the intermedio grid remains blank, and a business card from a Soho café with two handwritten Miami phone numbers on the back.
I start walking down the hill towards Crouch End, setting and title of a 1980 Lovecraftian short story by Stephen King, where, in 1983 and 1984 I would sit in Clive Barker’s front room on Hillfield Avenue as the evenings drew in and we would talk about Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison and Arthur Machen and many others (Peter Straub had lived on the same road and King had stayed with him while they worked on The Talisman together). I divert on to the north part of the Parkland Walk and feel myself being taken in the wrong direction and so, at Cranley Gardens, return to street level and walk past the former home of mass-murderer Dennis Nilsen, who lived in the top flat at No.23 from October 1981 to February 1983. I recall that some years later, seeing a For Sale sign outside, I had made an appointment to view the flat and had been struck by the way in which it had been remodelled, its bathroom gone, replaced by a shower room and a toilet. I wonder if I would be so ghoulish in middle age.
In Crouch End’s Oxfam bookshop I find a Corgi paperback of Arthur Machen’s Black Crusade and a historically interesting edition of an Agatha Christie novel that was later reissued, with a less controversial title, as And Then There Were None. Even more exciting, for a Picador collector, are a white-spined edition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is usually seen in the orange wraparound cover of the film tie-in edition, an edition of Ian McEwan’s In Between the Sheets that doesn’t have a topless model on the cover but does still picture an unmade bed (photographed by Tony Evans) instead of one of Russell Mills’s lovely abstract compositions, and The Beckett Trilogy containing Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable (cover by the prolific Russell Mills).
I walk up Crouch Hill, seeking the shade of the right-hand pavement, and then back down on to the south part of the Parkland Walk. When I reach Stoke Newington, the straps of my book bag cutting ever more deeply into my shoulder, I look wistfully at Church Street Bookshop and wonder if 24 hours is long enough, but I have to acknowledge a simple fact: the book bag is full.